If you are like me, turning on the TV political news channels nowadays is like watching a car accident happen in front of your eyes in slow motion. You see the damage being done and you see multiple ways it can be avoided, yet you feel helpless and compelled to watch as the Democrats and Republicans seem bent on a head-on collision. This is not any mild fender-bender either- it is a clash that will leave a lasting impact on this country for probably decades to come. I am not going to wade into the politics myself by trying to diagnose why this is happening and whose fault it may be. Instead, I want to write this article about the impact that I see all around me and how people’s personalities and behaviors may be changing right in front of us.
Advice from Rodney King
Rodney King, a controversial figure from the Los Angeles riots a couple of decades ago, famously said: “Can’t we all just get along?” How simple and naïve that sounds in today’s political environment. The reality is much more complex and the short answer is that no, we cannot all just get along, because some of us have strong and opposing views about how this country should be governed and compromise has been turned into a proxy for losing. Besides registered Democrats and Republicans, I also see those who have declared themselves as Independents taking up arms in this fight and holding strong views that put them in one camp versus another. As I stated earlier, compromise has turned into a dirty word and the middle-ground is considered no man’s land.
Division among everyone
Even friends and families are not spared in today’s social media-dominated world. Children are waging a war of words against parents, siblings not speaking to each other, and close friends drifting apart simply because the other supports a different political party and therefore is saddled with all the negative actions, perceived or real, done by the leaders of that party. This sounds silly even writing it now, but is a sad reality for many people today. At the workplace, discussion of current politics and explicit support for one side over another is considered equivalent to enabling a hostile work environment for others and can result in disciplinary action. How did one’s opinion of the manner in which the country should be governed become a permanent stain on their character and reputation?
Pressing issues creating a split
Some of these societal behaviors can be a result of the highly charged topics and questions that seem to dominate the politics of today. Immigration has become not just about economics or national values or the rule of law, but an emotionally charged lens through which people view right vs wrong. It has now been turned into a zero-sum game of pitting current citizens versus aspiring ones where one has to lose in order for the other to succeed. Health care has moved beyond the realm of a common-sense driven search for solutions and into the nasty world of pitting doctor remuneration versus patient care or the young paying for the bills generated by the old. Taxation has become the poster child for whipping the wealthy who are seen as robbing the nation’s treasure while the 99% are getting less than a reasonable share of the same. Instead of being debated as an economic issue or left up to the majority of voters to decide, it is instead painted as a way to get revenge on those who dared to exploit the country’s assets to create success and wealth for themselves. When viewed through these dark lenses, it is no wonder that people develop strong feelings of right and wrong on several of these otherwise routine governance topics.
Elections- Red vs Blue
Elections are no longer about exercising your civic duty, but instead a test and an inflection point that can take you down a path that is very different than your neighbor or family member and even terminate those relationships in extreme cases. The first Tuesday in November during the Presidential election years has become a date that is marked on the calendar as the day of the next big battle in this ongoing war. The time between those elections is spent gathering up your strength and arguments and recruiting like-minded warriors to give your side an advantage on election day. Even in schools, where young children who are not old enough to be eligible voters are asked to cast their ballot in mock elections, there is a high risk of turning this well–intentioned learning exercise into a battle of Red vs Blue and right vs wrong. Nobody is immune from this effect when they wade into the big bad world of politics, even if just as a civic-minded voter.
I am concerned about the lasting effects of such toxicity in our society and culture. Will the next generation of voters remember the way their parents were treated or the intrafamily arguments that ensued and develop similar strong feelings out of a sheer sense of loyalty or survival skill? Will teachers modify their approach for handling students who demonstrate tendencies to lean towards political views that are different than their own? What will that do to our ability to educate the youth who will be the political leaders of tomorrow? I worry about whether the natural conclusion of the path we are on is one that is marred by violence in an attempt to settle differences through might rather than the mind.